Spending on prisons in England and Wales is higher than in any other European country except for Russia, new figures show, fuelling concerns about the UK government’s plans to further increase the length of jail sentences.
In 2019, the total budget was £3.4bn, just under that of the Russia Federation, at £3.6bn, according to a report published by the Council of Europe on the penal statistics of its member states.
The figure was considerably lower in neighbouring countries that have larger populations, with Germany spending £3bn and France £2.5bn.
It also marks a significant increase in spending on prisons in England and Wales since 2015, when the figure stood at £1.9bn – a rise of £1.5bn in four years.
Data in the report also shows that England and Wales had the highest number of days spent in penal institutions in 2019, at 30.3 million, compared with 26 million in France and 23.5 million in Germany.
The UK as a whole – including Scotland and Northern Ireland, which have separate prison systems – has the third largest prison population, at 91,870, after only Russia (519,618) and Turkey (297,019), according to the report.
In 2019, England and Wales had the third highest proportion of inmates convicted to life imprisonment, at 9.7 per cent – higher than Albania (6.3 per cent) and Turkey (3.4 per cent).
The figures have prompted concern about the UK government’s plans to introduce longer prison sentences for serial burglars, knife carriers, killer drivers and children who commit murder, and plans to change release provisions to keep some inmates in prison for longer.
The plans were announced last month by the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, a week after a minister said harsher sentences had “limited or no deterrent effect” – bringing into question whether increasing the length of time criminals spend in jail will help cut crime.
It followed an announcement by the government last summer that it would spend £2.5bn on creating 10,000 additional prison places as part of a wider crackdown on crime.
Statistics published by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) show that the average prison sentence in England and Wales is currently the longest it has been for a decade, standing at 19 months.
While jail terms have been increasing, some offence types, like knife crime, have hit record highs, while prosecutions have plummeted to a record low of 7 per cent of crimes.
In response to the new data, Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, accused the government of making jail sentences “even longer” despite “knowing full well” that its own research had shown this would not work.
“Our European neighbours have recognised that there are far more effective ways to tackle crime than cramming people into prisons that create more problems and more victims,” she added.
“Any serious plan to make our towns and cities safer would start with investment in housing, employment and health services.”
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, echoed her remarks, saying: “There is not a shred of evidence that this runaway inflation in punishment reduces crime or makes us feel any safer.
“The government pledged to build back better following this pandemic, but its planned sentencing reforms simply repeat past mistakes. It’s time to change the record.”
A government spokesperson said: “We make no apologies for investing to keep dangerous criminals off our streets, reduce crime and ultimately protect the public.”
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